The Utopia of Zero Wishful Thinking

What is a history of thought? We are often told tales of the progress of thought from one mode to another over the centuries (say, magical – religious – rational – pragmatist – ), and yet no one has ever encountered a society in which any of the supposedly past modes of thought does not remain significantly present; nor are many past or primitive societies not known to have contained, or to contain, at least a few thinkers well ahead of their times. Many individuals come of age taking the latest and seemingly final mode of thought as utter common sense, whether or not they have a name to apply to it. For these people, the earlier modes of thought must be studied if their rejection is to be fully understood, and the whole operation takes on the appearance of two steps backward and two steps forward – a net waste of time, if not of research grants. All former patterns of thought look like blatant (however unconscious) wishful thinking, in which one would not have engaged no matter when one was born.

Look, for example, at the United States in 1995 in terms of the four types of thinking listed above. Is there magical thought? At first it may look as if there were mere remnants and oddities: the superstitions of athletes, President Reagan’s wife’s astrologer, 1-900- psychic phone lines, and so on. Once upon a time voodoo dolls could hurt enemies, and dances bring rain (though believers tended, nonsensically, to sharpen swords and store food). Nowadays when a team points its mascot in the proper direction, it doesn’t really expect this to help. We don’t say “Bless you” because we really consider sneezes dangerous. When we smooth out a blanket on which we have been lying, we aren’t saving ourselves from some enemy who might harm us by placing rocks or knives in our indentation; we just happen to like smoothed out blankets. And yet we have a persistent tendency to “think positive” about things over which we have no control. Or we ignore a problem in hopes that it will “go away”. If we mention a hoped-for success, we may be accused of “jinxing” it. If we think about someone, we may cause him to telephone, or vice versa. Taking an umbrella with you prevents rain. Punching a man may hurt his identical twin.

It’s true that in rural America magic seems more prevalent. The position of the cows in the pasture foretells the success of a fishing trip. And it’s also true that in traveling through another country the superstitions jump out at one more noticeably. For example, in much of Italy you must never give a gift with pins in it, open an umbrella indoors, take a shower after (or is it before?) a meal, or drink anything too cold. The gift will kill the recipient; the umbrella will bring stormy affairs into the house; the shower and drink will kill you. But we tend not to notice our own superstitions, of which we have plenty. Aside from such nonsense as lucky and unlucky numbers, ladders, black cats, and so on, many people have their own private magical beliefs based on repetition, e.g. a lucky shirt worn on some previous “lucky” occasion. And precisely our most intelligent intellectuals, among other egotists, may be found secretly to believe that they were magically destined for success.

Magical thinking is not just a scientific theory which has been replaced by a better (more useful) scientific theory. It bears that absurd inconsistency which is the mark of wishful thinking. If I believe that standing on my head on a particular day will make the crops grow well, I may sincerely believe this to the extent of always being quite certain to fulfill that duty. Yet I must explain away or simply ignore the fact that, nevertheless, sometimes the crops grow well and sometimes they do not. And I must find some reason to bother tilling the soil and caring for the crops which in any case are bound to grow well since I’ve already stood on my head on the proper day.

But what if tilling the soil and standing on one’s head are both understood as propitiating a god? What if there is no understanding that the one actually helps and the other doesn’t? Doesn’t wishful thinking require some awareness of futility?

What about religious thought in America today? It, too, seems to have weakened, even among most of its professed adherents. And yet it remains. We believe in Heaven while struggling to stay alive, condemning suicide, crying at funerals, betraying our dead friends’ secrets. We believe in an omnipotent benevolent God who administers a less than good world. Some of us suppose that, though Darwin was right, God set the whole shebang in motion. Even though scientific determinism is so, we’ve still got Christian Free Will. Or, even though God can’t prevent evil, he’s doing his best and ought to be prayed to for various reasons. Or, even though non-believers will burn in Hell, one can happily marry a non-believer and declare toleration the highest political good. Or, even though people in churches other than mine are wrong, we’ll all go to Heaven. And, even though I must accept full responsibility for my actions, I am whatever God made me, and I must obey his will and blame him for my screw-ups and expect his eventual assistance.

A mess, in other words. But most of this is nothing new. Christianity – to take our most popular religion – has always believed in Heaven while inexplicably banning suicide and failing to encourage all Christians to put their lives at the greatest possible risk for some acceptable purpose. The problem of evil has had a long and glorious history. The problem of Darwin can expect the same. But I should not dwell on the inconsistencies of merely nominal Christians. The merely nominal is not harmful. The danger of religion lies in the establishing of an authority. Christianity is perhaps the greatest force of kindness and inclusiveness we have known. Yet, the other day on television, Pat Robertson declared it God’s will that Americans not risk their lives for mere Yugoslavians who had chosen to engage in “self-holocaust”. Without the part about “God’s will” this would simply be some nut’s absurd opinion, to be weighed against the opinions of others. Those believers who laugh at Mr. Robertson are not so willing to laugh at the concept of “God’s will”, at the idea that such a thing exists and might, in theory anyway, be known. We imagine that there is such a thing as a “right” action, which we do our best to determine by human means with the occasional prayer or meditation thrown in. We are thus quite a ways from losing our religiosity.

But aren’t we so far that many people have never even doubted that there is a “God’s will”? And, so, aren’t they cleared of the charge of wishful thinking and saddled with that of ignorance?

That the denial of death is inconsistent and wishful need hardly be argued. Likewise the laying of responsibility for one’s fate on “God”. But the concept of “rightness” is still so much with us, and in such a secularized form, that we may not see it for what it is: a wish for permanence. To understand this, we must turn to the next mode of thought: rationalism.

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . . Nothing confused me more, growing up, than this sort of language. If something was self-evident, why say it, much less argue about it? And what was a creator? And what was a right? Well, the point seemed to be that we wanted to establish a political system which would not permit certain abuses against any citizen. Nothing so difficult there. And there I left it. Everybody, I was aware, talked about rights as something we “had,” and I took this as simply a queer way of talking about how we wanted our government to treat us. But then I discovered that people actually believe that rights are things we have, that an intelligent Martian could put a human under a microscope and discover his rights: “Let’s see . . . a brain, two lungs, a liver, and . . . what have we here? A-ha! it’s a right to freedom of religion! And what’s that over by the heart? A right to the freedom of assembly. . . .” People actually believe something roughly along these lines, and have, I guess, since the Enlightenment so enlightened them.

The idea, apparently, is that there is an innate “human nature” (as set forth by God, though that may be left unsaid) to which we ought to adhere in order to be properly the humans that we are. When Jean-Paul Sartre says that there is no human nature, and you wonder what in the world he means (are there, then, no universal human traits?!), this is what he is talking about. We still talk about whether people are actually good or really bad. Nothing is more common in our speech than Enlightenment phraseology. We think there are things (that is, words) which have essential natures we can discover, or at least worry about. Take this passage out of an article in The New Republic of 4 December 1995:

“Is it morally acceptable for a liberal democratic society to accept as allies (or worse, to bring into being) authoritarian states which use exceedingly nasty methods, simply because they oppose a totalitarian rival? Is it even politically expedient? And from the standpoint of social theory, of the attempt to understand how societies actually function, is it illuminating to lump the two together, simply because they are both sinful? Or should one go further and class liberal society with totalitarianism, on account of the sins committed by liberal society itself, whether internally or in its foreign policy?”

The author of this piece of confusion is caught between realizing that the criterion for judging a description is its ability to illuminate, and expecting yes or no answers from some unknown source to the question of the propriety of his various descriptions. The answer to his first question is: we need a lot more detail. Likewise to his second the answer is: sometimes. To his third question one must respond by inquiring what in the world he means by the word “actually”. Is there some particular way in which societies ACTUALLY function, above and below our many descriptions of them? To the fourth and final question, we may answer, after ignoring the unexplained reference to “internal” liberal “sins”, that if two different entities both do undesirable things then they have in common having done undesirable things. But then, how illuminating is that? And how, post-Wittgenstein, is it that we go on treating words like ‘democracy’ or ‘authoritarian state’ as if they stood for homogenous groups of identical entities sharing a particular essential nature? Do we really expect to collect all authoritarian states and set forth rules for how to deal with them all at all times? Come on. The author of the quoted piece cannot believe this. And yet his language betrays him.

An example of rationalism can as easily be found in the area of science as in that of ethics. There currently exists a great debate between “realists” and “anti-realists”, who for the most part disagree on absolutely nothing. The anti-realists deny the rationalist Enlightenment idea that we can get at an absolutely eternally true final description of the world in no way limited by our own theories and methods of investigation. They point out that no one has ever so much as suggested suitable criteria for success in this regard, that we have no workable idea of what we’re supposedly aiming for. The realists, on the other hand, deny the idea (held by absolutely no one) that a person can, for example, have type A blood in one country and type B in another. The problem, of course, is that the realists have more or less taken for granted what the anti-realists are presenting as a new and radical idea. (By “realists” I mean to refer primarily to scientists; I’m ignoring those philosophers, now limited to the English speaking countries, who actually are rationalists). One fails to comprehend what it is the anti-realists reject, and so one assumes that they are rejecting the value of science. They call science “arbitrary” and so you assume that they believe people must walk in some countries but can fly in others, whereas all they mean is that whether a whale is a mammal or a fish is a matter of human convenience.

But the realists have not clearly articulated for themselves what it is they take for granted. So, while they have never even considered the idea of an ultimate Truth in the Enlightenment sense, they may hold on to various remnants of that notion. They may be found insisting that there is something more to truth than consensus. If so, they are usually talked out of that idea very quickly. When everyone took it as True that heavy objects fall faster than light ones, and Galileo changed their minds, he changed both the consensus and (therefore) the truth. That the earth is round is a consensus, and therefore a truth. There is not something in addition to consensus which makes it more profoundly True. Or if there is, no one has yet explained what. This does not, of course, mean that the theory changes the facts, that Galileo’s words altered the behavior of bodies. It means, rather, that a theory is falsified only by the emergence of a theory we prefer, and verified only by our continued adherence to it.

Rationalism believed in human nature, natural rights, and the absolute extra-human value of scientific truths. (I naturally employ the past tense precisely for that mode of thought which is least past). It did so even while continually creating the nature of humans, devising new rights without any explained empirical basis, and revising scientific methodology ad hoc without any foreseeable limits. The inconsistencies are glaring. But why is this wishful thinking? It is wishful thinking because it represents a longing for something eternal, something outside the fleeting contingencies of human history. The facts, of course, are that humans are born, exist a few moments knowing they are doomed though usually avoiding the thought, and cease to exist. They would like, or some of them would, to be in touch with something longer-lasting, and perhaps also to contribute something longer-lasting to a cultural heritage. If political societies are never absolutely right, future ones may view ours with scorn. If scientific paradigms are ever-changing, our scientists may be laughed at not long after they are cold. It certainly looks like that is the case. Some recent artistic trends may be seen as (morally despicable) attempts to produce something bizarre enough to keep the future’s attention regardless of how much they do for us today.

“Morally despicable” here means “I don’t like it”, and nothing more. I don’t like it because it is selfish. And you won’t like it if you don’t like selfishness. But what the “will of God” would have to say is beyond me. What would be “right” is an empty question.

I have moved from rationalism to pragmatism in my discussion of the former. To some this may be common sense, to others scandalous. Changes in “modes of thought” are like that. They are gradual, making their way into children’s books before all the PhD’s have even heard of them. A pragmatist (or postmodernist) may say something like: “All great thinkers are just symptoms of their times”. This sounds like he’s saying that there is no great thinking, that all the alleged thinkers really just collected ideas current among the educated of their day. But that’s not at all what he means. He simply wants to deny that each new philosophy was a step closer to some ultimately perfect philosophy. You may never have imagined any such thing. Or, on the other hand, you may be shocked by his denial. You may assume that there is some perfect philosophy out there, even though you can’t begin to specify how you would know when you had it.

Meanwhile, however, the pragmatist has left you behind with the assertion that not only will there never be an ultimately true philosophy, but neither will there continue to be any philosophies at all, pragmatism itself being simply an anti-philosophy. This sort of talk has gotten itself something of a bad name, in so far as every author wants to be personally the first non-philosopher. Nietzsche rejected almost everything that went before him. Heidegger lumped Nietzsche together with what he had rejected, and then rejected the whole. Derrida has added Heidegger to the mix, and rejected the group again. No doubt somebody will soon reject Derrida. There is something to all of this, beyond the egomania, at least in Nietzsche’s and Derrida’s cases (Heidegger was basically wrong), but it all just confuses the important point. Which is: No longer will we accept any wishful thinking!

The first religious thinkers, to stick with our simplistic schemata, could have said the same in response to the magicians, as could the first rationalists in response to the religious (in fact, they did), and as will any future brand of thought which overcomes pragmatism. How can we be so sure that pragmatism is the answer? Is it enough that what pragmatism is is an assertion that there are no answers? Basically, yes. Pragmatism asserts that nothing will last. Thus, whether pragmatism lasts or not, as long as it is not replaced by its predecessors, it – in effect – lasts. It is incapable, therefore, of not lasting. To pragmatism, the future is an unimaginable innovation to be produced by brilliant human creativity. It will be pragmatist because everyone has always been pragmatist, whether they called themselves magical, religious, or rationalist. These three types are to be rejected as a whole because they are not, any one of them, consistent. They substitute desiring for believing, and false-comfort for utility.

But in rejecting these things, let’s not fall victim to the popular nihilist idea that this constitutes some kind of a loss. Without God everything is permitted. Of course, and everything always was permitted, including the inventing of God, and the partial belief in that invention. To recognize this is a gain in clarity, a loss in nothing at all. Without life eternal, life remains what the vast majority of people have all the time known it was: something both horrible and joyful, as joyful as we make it. Without permanence, we are granted the dream of infinitely different futures, to which we selflessly contribute our bit, though it and our fame will eventually be lost in the ceaseless flow. Those of us who never believed in any of what is rejected, obviously lose nothing. What remains is not a permanent solution to human life, something to leave future generations out of work and bored to death. What remains are art, science, ethics, politics. That we cannot have a perfect art keeps art alive. That science is never finished is the salvation of future scientists. That there is no longer the question of whether the poor have a “right” to the help of the rich, allows us to ask more clearly: “Ought the rich to give a damn?” and to answer as we choose. We are left with a courageously human utopia.
3 December 1995

Addendum Oct. 1997: I highly recommend an article by Raymond Williams called “Advertising: the magic system” which argues that “If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly. A washing-machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward-looking or an object of envy to our neighbors.”

Addendum 26 January 1999: Which is more dangerous: science or religion?
Let’s take religion to mean either or both of the ideas that humans don’t die and that some unknowable humanlike being either unknowably controls human behavior or unknowably wishes that it could.

Let’s take science to mean either or both of the ideas that a lot of stuff can be expected to behave in the future the way it has behaved thus far and that by both devising new concepts and experimenting with stuff we can predict ever more events.

The first thing to notice is that these two attitudes are not entirely in conflict or competition. One can rely on science for many beliefs while holding a few others.

The next thing to notice is that for anyone who fully believes one of these views (assuming such can be done), the view cannot be, for that person, dangerous.

If my belief that humans don’t die leads to my death, then I have lost my religion and myself. It is too late for me to attribute danger to religion. If my belief in an unknowable being results in great suffering, I need not call religion dangerous. It can be the desire of the unknowable being that
there be great suffering.

I have in the definitions above divorced science from technology. If a tool devised by people believing in science causes suffering, I can blame the technological APPLICATION of science as dangerous.

I have also divorced science from a belief in the pursuit of something called objective reality, a substance that recent thinkers equate with the viewpoint of the unknowable being, and thus with religion.

But even without a single, final, Objective viewpoint, can’t we step outside the viewpoint of the religionist or the scientist and accuse them of dangerous thinking in OUR OPINION? Of course we can. But to be convincing, we have to bring others over to our opinion.

Once we do not agree with religion, it is possible to accuse religion of dangerously promoting ways of thinking similar to religion. Once we believe that humans die, it is possible to look for instances where (presumably undesirable) deaths resulted from the lack of belief in death. Once we believe that the unknowable being is the same thing as a non-existent being, we can find danger in appeal to its authority and in reliance on its responsibility, and in a related belief that humans are superior to other animals.

But if we are coming from the camp of the scientists, then we must look at all of the evidence. Sure, the religious say that humans don’t die. Yet they also discourage suicide, do not encourage extremely life-threatening do-gooding, tell their dead friends’ secrets, and struggle frantically to keep alive. How dangerous can a belief be that hardly looks like a belief?

The belief in the unknowable being seems to have many more serious results. Preachers advise us to allow Yugoslavians to engage in “self-genocide” because it is “God’s will.” We are told that “God hates fags,” and that the rich and poor “deserve” what they’ve got. The scientist can find no evidence anywhere for claims that someone “deserves” something. He cannot (yet) distinguish effort from luck from talent. But he can detect misery. He reads the paper and learns that a Republican Congress has determined that its religion matters more than the will of the citizenry of a nominal democracy. He sees that across from the White House limousines stop at a hotel facing a church on whose steps people sleep cold and wet.

What about looking at science from the outside? Doesn’t science risk arrogance? Don’t scientists think that they know how to improve farming, and doesn’t the technological application of this result in the decimation of ecosystems? And don’t scientists conclude that what we need to fix things is MORE technology? Hasn’t science allowed technology to produce weapons specifically designed for mass destruction?

And yet, without religion many people might lose their happiness and their will to help others. Without science many more would surely die of disease and malnutrition.

Do we want to bring people over to our position outside these beliefs? If we did we would have to do so by affirming other beliefs and celebrating life. Between these two beliefs religion holds the supreme advantage of a wealth of music and art on its side. At a recent MLK celebration I was struck by the religious music. I don’t know which belief is more dangerous, science or religion, but I know which is more enticing.

The green notes above were added 4, July, 1999. What must be opposed is not ALL wishful thinking (that is not possible), but conscious wishful thinking and failure to investigate one’s own behavior. Even so, others may at first think our actions look like wishful thinking.

Thanksgiving Day, 1999: In a biography called “Tecumseh” I recently read “Today we can be more charitable to Lalawethika. The witch hunts were not the creations of the Prophet, and however regrettable they were, to the Indians of that time – and it is only by their standards that he can fairly be judged – his purpose was commendable and his course rational. They believed that sickness was being caused by sorcery, and that its practitioners had to die to ensure the survival of the community.”

Did they believe that? I doubt it. Can groups never be judged? Can I not judge Lalawethika by my standards? Is it not wishful thinking to imagine that I can view him as his peers did? It may sound open-minded to pretend such power. Certainly it is encouraging that the author recognizes that what is considered rational is constantly changing. And, after all, on what basis do many of us adhere to our beliefs in the powers of current medical practices? Well, largely on the basis of experience and testing, I think. I don’t think the Indians believed in witches any more surely than my neighbors believe in God. They didn’t believe in witches in the way that they believed deer existed. The “belief in” that they held for witches was motivated by a desire to control things, to express anger, and to attack personal enemies. Those named as witches often happened to be rivals of those doing the naming. I would call this sort of belief, and nothing else, irrationality.